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Biden calls for urgent passage of $1.9trn Covid relief as Democrats aim to bypass Republicans in Congress

Lawmakers can muscle through coronavirus aid that is critical to administration’s response to public heath crisis

Alex Woodward
New York
Saturday 30 January 2021 02:01
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Democrats in Congress have signalled that they are prepared to pass Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation, even without any significant Republican support.

The moves came as the president urged swift passage and administration officials and lawmakers point to a desperate need to act as the public health crisis enters its second year.

But Democratic leadership is hoping to rely on a filibuster-proof reconciliation measure only as a last resort, following months of deadlocked negotiations and GOP obstruction before Congress passed a $900bn Covid-19 relief package late last year.

Now with a slim majority in the US Senate and a tie-breaking vote from vice president Kamala Harris, Democrats can usher through critical spending legislation with only 51 votes in the Senate through the budget reconciliation process – a procedure that Republicans have invoked several times in recent years to advance their agenda, including massive tax cuts in 2017. 

“I support passing Covid relief with support from Republicans, if we can get it, but the Covid relief has to pass, no ifs, ands or buts," the president told reporters on Friday.

On Thursday, Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said that the crisis has required “only big, bold action” to pass the legislation. “If our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will move forward without them,” he said.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi said that House and Senate lawmakers are crafting a reconciliation bill “if we need it”.

“We would hope that we would have bipartisan cooperation to meet the needs of the American people,” she said. “But we’re not taking any tools off the table.”

The package contains economic relief critical to the administration’s Covid-19 response, including billions of dollars to expand testing and vaccine infrastructure, support for schools, and expanded unemployment relief and direct payments for most Americans.

“You have to act now. There is no time to delay,” the president said from the White House on Friday as he met with the vice president and treasury secretary Janet Yellen. “The risk is not doing too much. The risk is not doing enough.”

Democrats aren’t likely to attract 10 Republican votes necessary to pass the measure in the Senate to avoid a filibuster without a reconciliation bill, unless the president’s legislation is significantly reduced, or spread out, including gutting direct payments for more targeted or means-tested aid. Republicans have argued the legislation is too broad and too costly.

Asked whether the push among some Democrats for a reconciliation process is hurting chances for his bipartisan support, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday that “we can’t imagine that the one in seven families that are hungry or the thousands who have lost a loved one care much about [congressional] procedure”.

Senator Bernie Sanders – who now chairs the Senate’s budget committee – has championed reconciliation efforts, saying that there is “no alternative” if “Democrats are to address the enormous crises facing working people, and keep faith with the campaign promises we made."

Democratic Senator Brian Schatz, said: “Money for vaccines has bipartisan support. Cash assistance has bipartisan support. Helping schools reopen safely has bipartisan support. If Republicans vote no on popular and urgent things, that’s their right, but [Democrats] can’t fixate on satisfying the punditocracy. We must deliver.”

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